The year in sports

There were some great moments in 2007, but it was a year of death and a steady rain of scandal.

Topics: Football, Basketball, Baseball, Tennis, Peyton Manning, College basketball,

The year in sports

The year in sports started a few hours earlier in 2007 than it usually does, and it started as badly as a year can start. Darrent Williams, an up-and-coming Broncos cornerback, was shot to death outside a Denver nightclub following a dispute at a New Year’s Eve party. He died in the arms of teammate Javon Walker. He was 24.

Later that New Year’s Day at the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., Boise State beat Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime. The ridiculously thrilling upset — which featured three touchdowns in the last 86 seconds, a hook-and-ladder play and, on the game-winning two-point conversion, a Statue of Liberty play — was one of the greatest college football games ever played.

So it goes? Good with the bad. Cycle of life. A rainbow for every storm-cloud and a birth for every death.

If only.

How many great games and thrilling moments would have been needed to make up for all of 2007′s tragedies? More than any year can provide. There were some nice moments in 2007, but it was a year of death and a steady rain of scandal.

By the time it drew to a close, three other 24-year-old active NFL players would be dead, the last of them, budding superstar safety Sean Taylor of Washington, murdered in his own bedroom by intruders. Formerly admired stars in basketball, baseball and football would be revealed as abusers of women, drugs and animals. A crooked-official scandal would shake the NBA and all other North American leagues.

There was violence. Two NBA stars, Antoine Walker and Eddy Curry, would be the victims of home-invasion robberies that fortunately were not as deadly as Taylor’s. Tennessee Titans star Adam “Pacman” Jones would be suspended for the year by the NFL for multiple arrests, including his role in a shooting during NBA All-Star weekend in Las Vegas that left a nightclub bouncer paralyzed. Other NBA stars were also involved in shootings, as either targets or bystanders.

Referee Tim Donaghy resigned from the NBA and pleaded guilty to federal charges after an FBI investigation revealed he’d bet on games and fed inside information to gamblers, a devastating scandal for the league and for other sports, which found themselves in the position of trying to prove the negative that Donaghy was not one of many officials on the take.

Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons, once one of the NFL’s most charismatic and marketable stars, was arrested as the ringleader of a dog-fighting operation based on property he owned in Virginia. Vick eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges and was sentenced to 23 months in prison. He could still face state charges. If his playing career isn’t over, it’s hideously damaged.

New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and Madison Square Garden lost a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former team marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders, who had accused Thomas of alternating between verbal abuse and sexual come-ons before she was fired in 2006. Browne Sanders won a judgment, then settled the case for $11.5 million.

And we haven’t even started talking about drugs yet.

From major raids on pharmacies and drug labs to Barry Bonds’ fraught chase and capture of the career home run record, performance-enhancing drugs were seemingly everywhere.

Late in the year former Sen. George Mitchell’s report on drug use in baseball dominated sports conversation. The Mitchell Report concluded that “for more than a decade there has been widespread illegal use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball.” The report named almost 100 names, the biggest of them seven-time Cy Young Award-winner Roger Clemens, who in a statement denied ever having doped.

But the games did go on. They really did. And from that lulu of a Fiesta Bowl to the New England Patriots’ pursuit of a perfect season, they still had the amazing ability to dazzle, delight and make us forget the troubles of the world — even the troubles of the sports world.

2007 was a year of fresh champions such as the Anaheim Ducks, who took home their first Stanley Cup, and of dynasties such as the San Antonio Spurs, who won their fourth NBA title in nine years. And then there were the Boston Red Sox, who moved from one category to the other. Three years after winning their first World Series in 86 years, the Sox won again, then began negotiating to trade for Minnesota Twins ace Johan Santana in an attempt to solidify their position atop the game.

Barry Bonds’ approach to Henry Aaron’s lifetime home run record of 755 provided the baseball season with a long, strange psychodrama. San Francisco fans, and almost no one else, cheered when Bonds broke the record in a home game in August; one of baseball’s most respected figures had been supplanted by the face of the steroid era. After the season, Bonds would be indicted on perjury charges for allegedly lying to a grand jury in the investigation of the BALCO lab when he said he’d never knowingly taken steroids.

Bonds, now a free agent with 762 career home runs, pleaded not guilty and is expected to go on trial in 2008.

Though the baseball postseason ended with a fizzle — the Sox’s win over the Colorado Rockies was the third World Series sweep in four years — the regular season ended like firecrackers. The Rockies made the postseason by winning 13 of their last 14 games just to earn a tie for the wild card with the San Diego Padres.

They won a humdinger of a one-game playoff in extra innings, then swept the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks in the playoffs. They reached the World Series having won 10 straight and an astonishing 21 out of 22. Then they got swept.

The New York Mets crashed as spectacularly as the Rockies soared. On the morning of Sept. 14, the Mets led the National League East by six and a half games and had won 10 of their last 12. Starting that night they were swept by the second-place Phillies, the beginning of a 5-12 tumble that knocked them out of the playoffs, the Phillies winning the division instead. The Mets went 1-6 in the last week of the season, a pratfall as spectacular as Philadelphia’s own famous nosedive in 1964.

The big news of baseball’s other season, the offseason free-agent frenzy, was New York Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez opting out of the last three years of his famous 10-year, $252 million contract and re-signing with the team for 10 years, $275 million. A-Rod and his agent, Scott Boras, angered the baseball world by announcing his decision to opt out during a World Series game.

In the NFL Peyton Manning shed his reputation as a big-game loser by leading the Indianapolis Colts to their first Super Bowl victory since the 1970 season, when the team played in Baltimore. Along the way the Colts beat their habitual playoff tormentors, the Patriots, in a thrilling AFC Championship Game that included a comeback from a 21-3 deficit.

The Super Bowl, in which the Colts beat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, was the first to match two black head coaches, Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and Lovie Smith of Chicago. It was also the first Super Bowl played in the rain. And it was the first played in the rain by two teams with black head coaches.

The Colts and Patriots met again in Week 9 of the 2007 season in a game that wags semi-facetiously dubbed the “Game of the Century.” It was the latest week in an NFL season that two undefeated clubs had met. The Patriots won 24-20 and kept on winning, 16 in a row to become the first NFL team to go undefeated in the regular season since the Miami Dolphins in 1972, when the NFL season was only 14 games long.

New England’s perfect record was marred in the eyes of many — including Don Shula, who coached the ’72 Dolphins — for what came to be known as “Spygate.” During the first quarter of the first game of the season, against the New York Jets in New Jersey, NFL security officials confiscated a video camera and tape from a Patriots employee who had been pointing the camera at the Jets bench, which is against the rules because such tape could be used to decode coaches’ signals.

Shula went so far as to say at midseason that if the Pats went undefeated, their record should have an asterisk because they gained an illegal advantage, though it’s unclear how a team could gain enough of an edge to win 16 straight games from less than one quarter of taping on opening day. Shula later backed off from his comment.

The Patriots were fined $250,000, coach Bill Belichick was dinged for twice that much, and the Pats were docked their first-round draft pick in 2008. Whether that punishment was appropriate or a slap on the wrist largely depends on what team you root for.

The Bears took the traditional path of the Super Bowl loser and stumbled through the ’07 season, missing the playoffs. They were replaced atop the NFC by two historic powers, the Green Bay Packers and Dallas Cowboys, who were led by similar quarterbacks.

A resurgent 37-year-old Brett Favre led the Packers to their first playoff berth in three years while Tony Romo, a Wisconsin kid who grew up idolizing Favre, recovered from a disastrous muffed snap that cost the Cowboys a playoff win in January to take his place among the league’s elite players in the fall.

Throughout the year the health of former NFL players continued to gain prominence as an issue. Congress held hearings, and former and current players tried to raise money for and consciousness about ex-players with serious health issues, many of whom blame the league and the players union for failing to help them despite their role in helping to build the NFL into a multibillion-dollar business.

In college football, that Boise State win over Oklahoma –exciting as it was — was essentially an exhibition game. The bowl game that counts, the BCS Championship Game, was played a week later, and Florida routed Ohio State 41-14.

Eight months later the tone was set for the 2007 season when Appalachian State, a member of the so-called NCAA Football Championship Subdivision — formerly known as Division I-AA — beat Michigan in Ann Arbor. Appalachian State would go on to win the — oh, let’s just call it Division I-AA — championship.

Division I-A, officially known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, would go through a topsy-turvy season, with teams cycling in and out of the top 10 willy-nilly, only to end up with usual suspects Ohio State and LSU scheduled to meet in the BCS Championship Game Jan. 8.

This year’s Boise State — that is, the undefeated smaller-conference team shut out of the championship picture, illustrating once again that Division I-A is a league in which not everyone is eligible for the championship — is Hawaii.

In a first, the same schools that played for the football championship met again for the men’s basketball championship three months later, the Gators winning that one too for their second straight basketball championship. Florida is the first school to win the football and men’s basketball titles in the same academic year.

Greg Oden, freshman center and star of that runner-up Ohio State team, went on to become the first overall pick in the NBA draft over the summer, taken by the lottery-winning Portland Trail Blazers, but he’ll miss the entire season after undergoing knee surgery.

Tennessee won the women’s basketball Tournament for the record seventh time, beating Rutgers in the Championship Game 59-46. The next day, radio host Don Imus, evidently aiming for humor, referred to the mostly black Rutgers players as “nappy-headed hos.” The resulting uproar eventually led to Imus being fired by CBS Radio. He reached a settlement on his contract in November and was back on the air with ABC Radio soon afterward.

Another dynastic group was the San Antonio Spurs, who won their fourth NBA championship since 1999. The Spurs, led by Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, a series notable only as the first appearance on the league’s biggest stage for LeBron James, the 22-year-old fourth-year player who figures to be the NBA’s great star for the next decade or so.

The one-sided Finals were a fitting end to a mostly dreary playoff season that was marred by a terrible disciplinary decision in what might have been the most exciting series, the second-round Western Conference matchup between the Spurs and the Phoenix Suns.

In the waning moments of Game 4 of that series, won by the Suns, Robert Horry of San Antonio committed a hard foul on Steve Nash. Several players on the Suns bench jumped up and took a few steps toward Horry but were quickly herded back to their seats by coaches.

But commissioner David Stern, applying the letter rather than the spirit of the rule forbidding players from leaving the bench to join an altercation, suspended two key Suns, Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, for Game 5, giving San Antonio a huge advantage in a series that was tied 2-2. Horry was also suspended, but he played a much lesser role for the Spurs, who won Games 5 and 6 to advance.

They weren’t seriously challenged again in the playoffs, easily beating the Utah Jazz and then the Cavaliers for the title. The Dallas Mavericks, who, along with Phoenix, had figured to be San Antonio’s chief rival, were eliminated in the first round in a memorable upset by the Golden State Warriors, in the playoffs for the first time in 13 years under coach Don Nelson — who had most recently coached the Mavericks.

A highlight of the NBA season for some was the publication of “Man in the Middle” by former journeyman center John Amaechi, who used the book to come out as gay. The reaction was mostly positive. The most notable exception was that of Tim Hardaway, who said in a radio interview that he “hates gay people” and wouldn’t want one as a teammate.

His comments resulted in the former All-Star losing his job as a consultant with a minor-league team and the NBA withdrawing its invitation for him to take part in All-Star festivities. Later in the year, Hardaway reportedly took it upon himself to attend classes at a Miami youth center to learn about problems faced by gay youth.

The early part of the 2007-08 season was notable for the resurgence of the Boston Celtics, who in the offseason traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to team with veteran Celtic Paul Pierce. The Celtics, once the colossus of the NBA, haven’t been to the Finals since 1987 and were coming off a 24-58 record last year. But with the new Big Three, the Celtics raced out to a 25-3 start, bringing up memories of the great Boston dynasty.

Roger Federer continued his own dynasty on the tennis court, winning the Australian Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the same year for the third time in four years. He was beaten in the semis in Australia in 2005. For the second straight year, Federer lost to Rafael Nadal in the final of the French Open, the only Grand Slam Federer’s never won. He beat Nadal, his chief rival, in the Wimbledon final.

The Williams sisters made a comeback on the women’s side, starting with Serena winning the Australian Open in January from the 81st seed. She was the third-lowest seed ever to win a Grand Slam tournament. It’s her third Australian victory and eighth career Grand Slam tournament win.

In the other Grand Slam events, Justine Henin won the French and U.S. Opens and Serena’s sister Venus Williams won Wimbledon from the 23rd seed. Saying she’d been inspired by Serena’s performance in Australia, Venus Williams became the lowest seed ever to win Wimbledon — breaking her own two-year-old record. She’d been seeded 14th in 2005. The win was Venus’ fourth Wimbledon and sixth Grand Slam title.

In golf Tiger Woods’ win at the PGA Championship allowed him to avoid a year with no wins in major tournaments, which would have been his first since 2004 and only his third since 1998. Woods now owns 13 major titles, five shy of the career record held by Jack Nicklaus. At the same age, 31, Nicklaus had won nine majors. The other majors winners were Zach Johnson at the Masters, Angel Cabrera at the U.S. Open, and Padraig Harrington at the British Open.

Morgan Pressell, 18, became the youngest woman to win a major when she took the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April. The other three majors were also taken by first-time winners: Suzann Pettersen at the LPGA Championship, Cristie Kerr at the U.S. Women’s Open, and Lorena Ochoa at the British Open. Ochoa was easily the top player on the tour, topping the rankings and the money list by a wide margin.

Annika Sorenstam, the young century’s most dominant woman golfer, had an off year. She was bothered by neck problems, missed significant time, and did not win an LPGA event for the first time since her rookie year in 1994.

Jimmie Johnson won his second straight NASCAR Nextel Cup. Kimi Räikkönen won the Formula 1 drivers championship. Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500.

A horse named Street Sense won the Kentucky Derby, Curlin and Rags to Riches taking the other legs of the Triple Crown. This wasn’t one of those years when a horse transcended the sport. But the biggest news to come out of racing did involve such a horse, Barbaro, the 2006 Derby winner, who was euthanized in January, the eventual result of his breakdown in the ’06 Preakness Stakes.

David Beckham, the 32-year-old metrosexual icon soccer player, left Real Madrid after it won the 2006-07 La Liga championship and joined the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer, a minor league in international terms. The American soccer league hoped the aging English star would raise its profile both internationally and among American sports fans, but while Beckham was a merchandising smash, he didn’t amount to much on the pitch, missing significant playing time with injuries.

In more significant soccer news — except on these shores — AC Milan beat Liverpool 2-1 in the UEFA Champions League Final.

The Tour de France continued its drug-fueled decline into farce. Not only was 2006 winner Floyd Landis officially stripped of his title following his positive drug test, but in the 2007 race, the leader, Michael Rasmussen, was kicked out of the race by his own teammates for lying about why he’d missed two dope tests prior to the season.

Like so much else that happened in 2007, it might have been funny if it weren’t all so sad. As the year ended, baseball was squabbling over the facts and meaning of the Mitchell Report, football was still mourning the death of Sean Taylor, who was named posthumously to the Pro Bowl, and all and sundry were looking forward to a better 2008.

After all, it couldn’t be much worse than ’07 was.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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